21st century boy

I’m sick of the way students are viewed by the public. Thirty years ago it seems being a student was quite a prestigious thing but now ‘student’ has become a stigma with negative associations. Associations like laziness, petty resentment and a lack of presentability and perhaps personal hygiene, the same way that ‘teenager’ does. Advertising campaigns, like a recent KFC one, and the media, with their ever-popular ‘A parent’s guide to student life’, only serve to entrench this image. Certainly many of these issues can be explained by differences between ages and generations but I think that there is something about the different approaches to work that explains this frowning at student life.

Students are often forced into close proximity with low-paid locals because of their common needs in terms of accommodation and leisure. And at times this can create tension, certainly in some towns it is not unheard of for students to be the targets of unprompted attacks. But proximity can only be a catalyst not the sole motivation for disapproving of students.

One consideration is the popularisation of higher education. Around two million people, almost one in thirty, now attend university in the UK. Fears are that this may devalue the degree in the long term as dictated by the laws of supply and demand. But in the meantime opinions differ over what qualifies as a true degree and what is a so-called mickey-mouse subject. Certainly the lifestyle of an individual student can be decided by what course they do because each one gives a radically different experience of university. For example as an arts student I enjoy plenty of free time with the occasional titanic essay whereas friends of mine doing maths or science are subject to a more evenly weighted schedule. But I think that the concept of the student exists separate to individual courses

Admittedly some students are lazy but some people in wider society are also lazy. Just like some students are hard-working. It’s all a question of upbringing and environment. A university is effectively a micro-society, a miniature community that, in its diversity, reflects the greater whole. This suggests a generalisation on the part of the cynic and in my mind tells more about the accuser than the accused.

In my constant pursuit of subsistence I once worked doing odd manual jobs for a company of shop-fitters during the holidays. I usually work for a week at a time, on one job however I only opted for a couple of days of work because it was Easter and I had an essay to do and exams coming up. The boss was perfectly happy with this but one of the site managers took exception to it.

As I was up a ladder, in the middle of a task involving unscrewing three hundred light-bulbs, he paces over and stands at the base. ‘Two days’ work!’ he laughs ‘It’s alright for these students isn’t it!’ His fag was in one side of his mouth so he had to talk out of the other and while he held his coffee in one hand he gestured to the guys listening to him with the other. He continued to let off his rant for another hundred light bulbs before finishing with; ‘Students! I don’t know.’

But whether serious or jovial this anecdote, for me, as well as reaffirming my earlier point, demonstrates something about the twenty-first century work ethic. It has been argued by critics, Weber for one, that in the nineteenth century the Protestant work ethic was a major force behind the industrial revolution. The belief that God rewards those who work the hardest allowed for the exploitation of the growing urban working class. Low labour costs meant massive profits could be invested in capital creating the exponential growth that defined Britain’s economic prosperity.

And to an extent, a certain amount of that Protestant work ethic survives but with the decreasing presence of God another motivation has to be found. There seems to be a belief among people that the more gruelling and hard work is, the more value it has. In economics terms this is clearly incorrect if we understand ‘hard’ labour to mean long hours and repetitive tasks then we can assume this idealised labour is relatively unskilled and the price for unskilled labour will always fall lower than the price of skilled labour.

Cynically, in a Gramscian analysis this work ethic can be considered integral to capitalism as such a belief motivates low-earners to work in order to climb the proverbial ladder, creating the necessary amount of consumption to power growth which is the essence of stability. But a negative side-effect of this ethic is the outward pessimism which marks that peculiarly British consciousness. In tougher jobs this manifests itself as a sense that work is a kind of martyrdom that can be felt in the sense of futility given off by post-Thatcherite union movements.

This, I feel, is where the student and the popular work ethic differ most. The etymology of the word ‘student’ finds it derived from the Latin ‘studio’ which although obviously associated with ‘studying’ actually has a distinctly different meaning; ‘eagerness’. Fundamentally education is enabling and empowering. It opens metaphorical doors, maximising personal freedom. And as a means to an end it is cathartic. Thus, from a student’s perspective at least, eagerness in all things, rather than just studying, seems to be the ethic of ‘studentism’. Doing everything in binges; drinking, working, socialising. I believe it is this difference which creates friction between students and the older generation.

Taking all this as given, attitudes have to change. A belief among voters that university as a whole, or even in part, is a waste of time is a serious threat to the progress of higher education. It is also one of the greatest barriers to social mobility as children brought up in university-sceptical families stand little chance of ever changing their lot. As I have said, education is economically liberating in the way that an average job is not and so any family caught generation after generation in the poverty trap would do well to shed its prejudices over students.


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